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I was watching a video that referenced the "Major General Song" from The Pirates of Penzance in 1879, and I noticed that the writers clearly use vegetable as a 4-syllable word. The Wiki entry also notes that they used "gineral" to make it rhyme with "mineral," which is odd because nowadays general always rhymes with mineral (at least in my area of the U.S.), so at least one word has definitely shifted in pronunciation.

Has the pronunciation of vegetable shifted to the 3-syllable "vetchtable" after this was written, or has it always been contracted this way? Are there any sources that discuss this pronunciation?

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    You cannot depend on Gilbert & Sullivan for information on real-life pronunciations. Indeed, I recall in one of their songs, the same word is pronounced in two different ways in order to rhyme with two different things. The Oxford American dictionary lists two pronunciations of vegetable, one with 3 syllables, one with 4.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 1:21
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    I pronounce vegetable with four syllables! W S Gilbert deliberately used 'unlikely' rhymes for comic effect. In this song, the General is supposed to be 'searching for a rhyme' for the last line of each verse, when it's obvious that the previous line uses unnatural language to provide a rhyme for the required word. Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 8:41
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    OED has Brit. /ˈvɛdʒ(ᵻ)təbl/, U.S. /ˈvɛdʒtəb(ə)l/, /ˈvɛdʒədəb(ə)l/ without other pronunciation information, so I expect that the answer to "When did three syllables start?" is only going to be forthcoming from a sound archive.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 8:53
  • "That every boy and every gal. That's born into the world alive. Is either a little Liberal Or else a little Conservative!" - Iolanthe Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 10:02
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    There wasn't a single point in time when the pronunciation changed. Consider favorite. Most people today pronounce it with two syllables, but a few still use three. And in Sound of Music the song goes These are a few of my fav-o-rite things. A few years before that was written, W. H. Auden wrote Read on, ambassador, engrossed // In your favourite Stendhal; // The Outer Provinces are lost, where favourite clearly has two syllables. Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 18:07

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To answer the actual question, vegetable probly became "vechtable" the first time it was pronounced in a hurry.

There are four possible syllables; in order, with ruffli funnedik spelling,

  1. VEH (primary stress)
  2. juh (unstressed, reduced vowel)
  3. tuh (unstressed, reduced vowel)
  4. bull (secondary stress)

The first syllable is stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables. Those two syllables (2-3) normally coalesce into one syllable at speech rate (in American English, at least), like will not into won't, or I will into I'll. Except the spelling doesn't show it, because English spelling doesn't show anything much.

They do this by dropping the unstressed schwa (uh) in (2) between J and T, putting those two stops into contact. Now J is really D plus ZH, and they're both voiced consonants. But T is voiceless. And they form a consonant cluster after the vowel between them gets deleted -- that is, they hafta be pronounced together, in a bunch.

There's a very strong tendency in all languages where voicing and consonant clusters occur, including English, for consonant clusters to be either

  • composed of all voiceless consonants: loft, spy, laps, gets

or

  • composed of all voiced consonants: luhvz, dzhordzh

So what happens is that J and T hafta be all voiced or all voiceless. And in English it's the last consonant in the cluster that decides the voicing, when a cluster is formed this way. That consonant is T and it's voiceless, so J is devoiced to CH (T plus SH) to match it. And you wind up with VECHtuhbull.

The process is completely automatic, like changing the vowel nucleus of the vowel in fife, but not the one in five, because fife ends in a voiceless sound. These are not things that happen to letters, by the way; they are are parts of the muscle and nerve patterns that inform the ways we pronounce the actual words. This is Phonetics, in particular the phonetics of English consonant clusters.

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  • This answer might also consider that some people collapse the word to three syllables but voice the consonants.
    – shoover
    Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 5:02

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